Be Fooled: America's Ten Worst Greenwashers
Shireen Deen, Valley Advocate
August 29, 2002
than a decade ago, on Earth Day 1990, millions of people joined
together around the country to protest the rapidly declining health
of our planet, forcing corporations to realize that even the average
Joe had started to take an interest in the well-being of the environment.
the level of "greenwashing" has spiked sharply since that
eventful Earth Day. Greenwashing is what corporations do when they
try to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they
the greenwashers get away with it more often than not. But their
deceptions do not go entirely unnoticed. Every year for the past
decade, the watchdog group Earth Day Resources for Living Green
has released a report called "Don't Be Fooled." The report
calls attention to the year's 10 worst greenwashers, the 10 companies
that have made the most misleading claims about the environmental
benefits of their products and industries. This year, EcoPledge.com,
a coalition of environmental organizations that uses boycotts to
put pressure on environment-abusing companies, has joined Earth
Day Resources in putting out the report.
Be Fooled" accuses corporations of deceiving consumers with
false claims of environmental responsibility and all-natural wholesomeness.
Not only does the report focus on deceptive claims made by corporations,
it also highlights specific sins, falling into two main categories:
producing genetically engineered foods and polluting the environment.
Kraft's Post Selects Cereals, for falsely promoting its cereals
as having "natural ingredients" when, in fact, the corn
used in the cereal is genetically engineered -- made in a lab, not
The Council for Biotechnology Information, for promoting genetically
engineered foods and even preaching to children -- through books
aimed at kids -- about the benefits of biotechnology without disclosing
any of the risks to human health or the environment.
Tyson Chicken, for promoting its products as "all natural,"
even though the company treats its chickens with antibiotics.
The Audubon Nature Institute -- not to be confused with the National
Audubon Society -- for falsely claiming to support the protection
of natural habitats as a way to preserve animal species, while also
belonging to the National Wetlands Coalition, which lobbies to weaken
the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The National
Wetlands Coalition is made up of such corporate giants as the American
Mining Congress, Chevron, Exxon and the National Association of
Comanche Trace, a commercial developer, for false advertising. Comanche
Trace bills its golf courses as "great habitats," even
though golf courses deplete natural habitats and use pesticides
that poison groundwater.
Clairol, for false advertising. The company claims to offer a "truly
organic experience" with its Herbal Essences line of shampoos
but, according to the report, uses chemicals such as sodium lauryl
sulfate, propylene glycol and D&C red no. 33, which are not
organic. (The report notes that Clairol does use some organic ingredients,
does not test on animals and uses 25 percent post-consumer recycled
plastic in its bottles.)
American Electric Power, for falsely advertising itself as environmentally
friendly and concerned about animal habitats, even though it is
a major polluter. Its harmful emissions contribute to air pollution,
acid rain, global warming and mercury poisoning, according to the
Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, for falsely promoting coal
as a "clean fuel," even though carbon dioxide, one of
the byproducts of coal burning, is the primary greenhouse gas responsible
for global warning. Continued global warming will result in rising
temperatures, rising sea levels, increased rates of diseases such
as malaria and continued water pollution.
a recent interview with the Advocate, Joe Lucas, ABEC's vice president
of communications, said carbon dioxide -- also the gas that humans
breathe out -- isn't a contributor to global warming because if
it were, he rationalized, "the government would have to ask
us all to stop breathing.")
General Motors, for falsely promoting its cars as environmentally
friendly, with ads that place GM SUVs in natural habitats as if
they were as natural as the birds. In fact, SUVs get very few miles
to the gallon and are far more harmful to the environment than most
other automobiles. General Motors is a member of the Coalition for
Vehicle Choice, an organization that opposes clean air legislation
and laws directed at reducing auto emissions.
ExxonMobil, for falsely advertising that the air we breathe is getting
better, not worse. Along with the rest of the oil and gas industry,
ExxonMobil helped to kill the Kyoto Protocol, an international initiative
that called for tougher emissions standards.
Day Resources' reporting is persuasive because its claims are both
well-supported with evidence and concisely stated. The "Don't
Be Fooled" report contains information that is most often frightening
and at times even comical.
despite being readable and informative, the report is likely to
get short shrift from the media. Perhaps it goes without saying
that, unless the media broadcast the report, politicians will continue
to ignore its warnings. Whether or not the report has any pronounced
effect on the level of greenwashing that goes on every day ultimately
depends on the American consumer -- a consumer who, so far, appears
largely ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the deceptions being regularly
perpetrated by big business.
of the most compelling examples of the misinformation being doled
out to consumers is the work of the Council for Biotechnology Information.
Fish Head Onto a Monkey
-- basically, the manipulation of DNA -- is a relatively new agricultural
innovation, yet the practice has already become pervasive. The Council
for Biotechnology Information is a "coalition formed by the
leading biotech companies to educate people" about the benefits
of biotechnology, according to the Council's executive director,
Linda Thraine. The company put out a children's activity book in
2001 touting advances in bioengineering -- without, asserts the
"Don't Be Fooled" report, explaining any of the risks.
to the report, 60 to 70 percent of processed foods marketed in the
United States contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but
because the FDA does not require these foods to be safety-tested
before being released into the market, it's difficult to know what
long-term effects these new ingredients will have on human health.
have found that genetically engineered crops can also pose a threat
to the environment. Crops can be engineered to be toxic to certain
pests, such as the corn borers that feed on corn crops, but often
are also lethal to beneficial insects, like the lacewings that eat
the corn borers.
was quick to dismiss these accusations. "The products that
are now on the market, like corn and cotton, have been extensively
tested... Obviously, when we develop a product for human consumption,
our primary concern is safety," she said in an interview with
benefits of genetic engineering are incalculable, asserted Thraine.
"The one thing that people lose sight of is that there is chronic
hunger in the world. Biotech has a great role to play. It can help
farmers to harvest more of what they plant," she said. After
all, she added, "agriculture is a building block to overall
claimed that genetic engineering is not only revolutionary but safe
as well. It's not so different from what Gregor Mendel, the father
of genetics, did in the 1800s, said Thraine: "[Genetic engineering]
is similar to the age-old technology of crossbreeding ... It's not
like sticking a fish head onto a monkey."
that is exactly what it's like, according to the "Don't Be
Fooled" report. Traditional crossbreeding of the Mendelian
variety requires plants that are similar enough to cross-pollinate.
Genetic engineering, on the other hand, involves splicing together
the DNA of species that could not possibly crossbreed in nature.
For example, says the report, genes -- the building blocks of DNA
-- from a fish have been inserted into the DNA of strawberries and
tomatoes in the hopes that these genetically engineered fruits would
be better able to survive frosts.
would be naïve to dismiss the great potential within the field
of genetic engineering. However, given the probable risks, only
the greedy or the foolish would advocate continuing -- when the
health of entire populations is at risk -- without first rigorously
safety testing over an extended period of time these new "Frankenfood"
creations. So the questions beg to be asked: Why doesn't the Food
and Drug Administration safety-test genetically engineered foods,
and why doesn't it require companies to label foods as "genetically
Ainsworth-Wright, a spokesperson for the FDA, declined to answer
those direct questions. "The answer isn't cut and dry; it's
nothing I can boil down into a pat statement," she said, adding
that the answers might be found on the FDA's website.
are some very pat answers available on the FDA's website. In an
article addressing the safety of bioengineered foods, former FDA
Commissioner Jane E. Henney gave a simple, but remarkably inane,
already is present in all foods and is presumed to be [safe] ...
[A]dding a bit of DNA does not raise any food safety issues."
understanding of genetics is wildly unscientific. Yes, there is
DNA in all foods. But there is a huge difference between eating
a tomato with fish and eating a tomato that has been genetically
manipulated to include fish DNA -- effectively mutating the tomato.
In fact, even a slight mutation in human DNA can cause a host of
diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Parkinson's disease and Down's
particularly insidious example of the kind of risky biotechnology
that the Council for Biotechnology Information promotes is rBGH,
or recombinant bovine growth hormone, a synthetic hormone created
by the Monsanto chemical company that stimulates milk production
in cows, increasing production by up to 30 percent. Cows injected
with rBGH are at an increased risk for mastitis, an udder infection
that cows producing more milk are more susceptible to. The use of
rBGH has also been associated with increases in somatic cell counts,
or pus, in the milk that the cows produce. Simply put, along with
the extra milk, cows treated with the hormone also squirt out greater
levels of antibiotics, (which is used to treat the mastitis), pus,
and bacteria, which feed on the pus. Milk from cows treated with
rBGH also contains higher levels of IGF-I, a hormone that is linked
to breast and prostate cancer in humans.
Monsanto denies that there are risks associated with the growth
hormone, rBGH was banned by Canada in 1999 and has been banned by
the European Union since 1994. The United Nations food standards
body has also refused to certify that rBGH is safe, according to
Robert Cohen, a former member of that group. However, rBGH is legal
here in the U.S., and unless a milk carton is specifically labeled
"rBGH free," at least some of the milk inside was produced
using the growth hormone.
the international community continues to be wary of rBGH and the
health risks associated with its use, why isn't the U.S. government
it has to do with the fact that, from 1997 to 1999, Monsanto spent
$4 million a year lobbying the government.
U.S. government has different agencies to protect its citizens from
different threats. The EPA is supposed to protect the air, earth
and water. The FDA is supposed to protect us from dangerous foods
and drugs. But whom are these organizations really serving?
whopping two-thirds of the food products marketed in the U.S. contain
bioengineered ingredients that have not been safety tested by the
FDA. At the same time that the government has given the agriculture
industry a free pass on bioengineered ingredients, the industry
has been pouring money into political campaigns and spending millions
on lobbying efforts --more than $77 million in 2000.
same year, electric utilities and oil and gas corporations spent
$128 million lobbying for deregulation, which would enable them
to release greater levels of noxious gases into the air. Almost
all the utility companies opposed the Clinton administration's proposal
that would have required utility companies to produce at least 7.5
percent of electricity using renewable resources by 2010.
2000, the automobile industry spent well over $36 million on lobbying.
Along with the utilities and the oil companies, the automakers succeeded
in convincing George W. Bush to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol,
through which the U.S. had committed itself to stricter emissions
green organizations committed to protecting the environment and
to creating more stringent food safety regulations do not command
the financial resources that corporations do, so making their cases
becomes difficult. Many of these green groups are grassroots organizations
made up mostly of volunteers. Their task can be monumental when
corporations such as General Motors spend millions convincing consumers
that their SUVs -- some of which only get 13 miles to the gallon
-- are environmentally friendly.
such as "Don't Be Fooled," and the work of groups like
Earth Day Resources and EcoPledge.com in general, may appear to
be small weapons against the vast arsenals that corporations wield,
particularly when the government isn't doing its job. However, the
fact that corporations recognize that American consumers are actively
searching out green alternatives shows that consumers are not powerless.
In fact, consumers hold all the money that corporations can ever
hope to lay their hands on. Consumers have the power of the purchase.
Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop and a social activist, puts
it in her globalization primer and action guide, "Take It Personally:
How to Make Conscious Choices to Change the World:" "Don't
underestimate the power of the vigilante consumer."
Deen is a writer for the Valley Advocate.